Pro­fil­ing multi-faceted woman of sub­stance, PARUL S ME­HTA

In a can­did chat with Ci­tadel, PARUL S ME­HTA - suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur, so­cial worker and art con­nois­seur - re­veals her pas­sion to con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety and the 10th An­niver­sary of her brain­child, the YEL­LOW RIB­BON NGO FAIR.


Give us a glimpse into your child­hood and ado­les­cent years. What were the ma­jor in­flu­ences/in­ci­dents that have helped shape you into the com­pas­sion­ate and de­ter­mined woman you are today?

My ini­tial years were spent in the city of Mumbai, com­plet­ing my grad­u­a­tion in Com­merce from Po­dar Col­lege, Mumbai Univer­sity. With an in­her­ent interest for art and mu­sic, which have fas­ci­nated me all along, I pur­sued a BA in Sitar from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Al­la­habad. With a con­tin­ual quest for learn­ing and be­ing for­tu­nate to re­ceive the sup­port of my fam­ily, as in both pa­ter­nal and my in-laws, and most im­por­tantly my hus­band and chil­dren, who al­ways en­cour­aged me, I have com­pleted sev­eral note­wor­thy cour­ses from re­puted in­sti­tu­tions like Nir­mala Nike­tan, Har­vard Busi­ness School (where I com­pleted the ‘Au­then­tic Lead­er­ship Devel­op­ment Pro­gram’), INSEAD (where I was part of a seminar on ‘Women on Boards’ or­ga­nized by ICICI Bank), and The Busi­ness School for the World Foun­taine Bleau, France.

Grow­ing up, what were your dreams, as­pi­ra­tions and am­bi­tions?

Life is a jour­ney of many op­por­tu­ni­ties, where one needs to seize at the op­por­tune mo­ment and build on it. That is what turns dreams into re­al­i­ties and makes as­pi­ra­tions be ful­filled. I have al­ways been in­trigued by de­sign and mu­sic since my child­hood, and was in­clined to do some­thing in the creative field. The wish to give back to so­ci­ety was also a dream from a very young age, but I al­ways pon­dered on how to go about do­ing so as to en­sure im­pact and ef­fec­tive­ness. I strongly be­lieve that the Uni­verse de­fines the path when your in­ten­tions are good. My dreams turned into re­al­ity of be­ing able to give back to so­ci­ety through Ishanya Foun­da­tion.

Com­ing from a priv­i­leged back­ground, what drew your at­ten­tion to the grim re­al­i­ties of the dif­fi­cult lives led by un­der­priv­i­leged sec­tions of the so­ci­ety?

Born and brought up in an eco­nom­i­cally sound fam­ily, life has been kind enough to pro­vide me with an op­por­tu­nity whereby I could fo­cus to­wards bet­ter­ment of so­ci­ety; some­thing that I was al­ways in­clined to­wards and found so­lace in. In the early years of my life, es­pe­cially dur­ing my col­lege days, there was al­ways a sub­tle thought of purs­ing my interest and ded­i­cat­ing my full at­ten­tion to­wards it. But it was this one in­ci­dent that left a last­ing im­pres­sion on me, and from then on, I was clear that rather than main­stream job, I would fol­low my heart and fo­cus on im­prov­ing lives of the un­der­priv­i­leged. It was this one event where I was part of the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee in our col­lege for an eye camp. Amongst the var­i­ous ben­e­fi­cia­ries was a fee­ble old lady who walked up to me post her cataract op­er­a­tion and in a highly emo­tional voice men­tioned that I was an an­gel sent by God, and she burst out cry­ing. It had been over a cou­ple of years that she was suf­fer­ing from cataract but did not have the re­sources for her treat­ment.

It was a small in­ci­dent and just one more ini­tia­tive among many oth­ers that I was al­ready a part of. Sev­eral ben­e­fi­cia­ries would walk up to us and show their grat­i­tude…but maybe then I was not con­scious to the fact of the joy be­ing spread not only to the ben­e­fi­ciary but also to his/her fam­ily. But some­how, this time it was dif­fer­ent, the joy I ex­pe­ri­enced see­ing the hap­pi­ness of the old lady truly touched my heart and made me think…there could be thou­sands more such peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing but do not have ap­pro­pri­ate sup­port and re­sources.

Elu­ci­date on your foray into char­i­ta­ble and so­cial work.

The idea com­menced with some char­i­ta­ble work close to the fac­to­ries in Chin­dran vil­lage around Taloja, Raigad Dis­trict, Ma­ha­rash­tra. With the sup­port of an able team, we ideated and ini­ti­ated sev­eral in­come gen­er­a­tion pro­grammes. One of the early ac­tions was for the women in the com­mu­ni­ties in and around Chin­dran vil­lage, where we started tai­lor­ing classes. This pro­ject en­abled them to de­sign and sup­ply items to nearby bou­tiques, en­abling them to earn an in­come, thereby mak­ing them self-re­liant. Driven by the suc­cess of this ini­tia­tive, and the un­der­ly­ing thought of en­abling liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties for fi­nan­cially chal­lenged women to de­velop their true po­ten­tial, Ishanya Foun­da­tion (IsFon) started its jour­ney in 2006 to­wards build­ing a self-re­liant and self­sus­tain­able so­ci­ety.

Elab­o­rate on your con­nec­tion with Pune.

My move to Pune was courtesy our fam­ily busi­ness shift­ing base, and in hind­sight, I feel this move was meant to be, as this gave me the op­por­tu­nity to fol­low my dreams of working in the devel­op­ment sec­tor and be­ing able to con­trib­ute, and make a dif­fer­ence to those in need. Pune has been home for many years now, where we set up base for Ishanya Foun­da­tion, working closely with com­mu­ni­ties in and around East Pune and near our train­ing cen­tre lo­cated in Vi­man Na­gar. I am glad to call Pune home, as it is here that I have met sev­eral warm­hearted and like-minded in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies, who are working for the bet­ter­ment of our so­ci­ety, of our city. I be­lieve and know that col­lec­tively we can all make the dif­fer­ence and bring about the change we all en­vi­sion to see for that sec­tor of so­ci­ety.

What was your role in the es­tab­lish­ment of the Ishanya Foun­da­tion - the CSR ini­tia­tive of DFPCL - in 2006?

Driven by the pos­i­tive out­comes of the vo­ca­tional tai­lor­ing cour­ses that en­hanced the po­ten­tial skills of women in the com­mu­ni­ties, em­pow­er­ing them ad­e­quately to be self-sus­tained, Ishanya Foun­da­tion (IsFon) com­menced its jour­ney in 2006, working on community devel­op­ment with a fo­cus on women em­pow­er­ment, health and ed­u­ca­tion to­wards build­ing a self-re­liant and self­sus­tain­able so­ci­ety.

Share your vi­sion, as a direc­tor on the board of DFPCL, for Ishanya – the com­pany’s re­tail ven­ture and one of In­dia’s largest spe­cialty des­ti­na­tions?

The com­pany DFPCL and its group com­pa­nies, its man­age­ment and em­ploy­ees, are deeply com­mit­ted to­wards in­clu­sive growth by touch­ing peo­ple’s lives and be­com­ing change ini­tia­tors. We be­lieve that CSR is a dy­namic process, whereby con­tin­u­ous in­volve­ment and in­no­va­tion is re­quired to im­prove per­for­mances over the years and make mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion. The vi­sion of Ishanya Foun­da­tion is aligned with our par­ent com­pany of act­ing as an ef­fec­tive cat­a­lyst in DFPCL’s ge­ogra­phies of op­er­a­tions in cre­at­ing a self-re­liant and re­spectable so­ci­ety, with se­cure means of liveli­hood, through em­ploy­able skills and re­source sup­port, and ad­di­tion­ally to pro­mote and sup­port the rich cul­tural her­itage of In­dia. Through Ishanya and the Ishanya Art & Cul­ture Club (IACC), our rich cul­tural art forms and her­itage are pre­served, pro­moted and pro­tected through a guild of like-minded en­thu­si­asts and the cul­tural pro­grammes and shows con­ducted at Ishanya.

Along with your vast in­dus­try ex­per­tise and knowl­edge, you have also de­vel­oped a keen sense of giv­ing back to so­ci­ety. What, in your opinion, is the best way to em­power and up­lift so­ci­ety? How have your ef­forts in this area taken shape?

Armed with in­dus­try ex­per­tise, I have been able to suc­cess­fully com­bine a tra­di­tional busi­ness model with a press­ing

so­cial mis­sion in ways that have been help­ing to trans­form the lives of the less for­tu­nate. The foun­da­tion today works re­lent­lessly to­wards iden­ti­fy­ing po­ten­tial gaps in the eco­nomic and so­cial sup­port sys­tems, with special em­pha­sis on youth, women and marginal farm­ers and pro­vid­ing var­i­ous ini­tia­tives, con­duct­ing sev­eral out­reach pro­grammes in the ar­eas of women em­pow­er­ment through liveli­hood pro­grammes, health and ed­u­ca­tion. Be­sides in­come gen­er­a­tion pro­grammes for un­der­priv­i­leged women and var­i­ous vo­ca­tional cour­ses, we also or­ga­nize sev­eral med­i­cal camps and other community devel­op­ment ini­tia­tives across west­ern In­dia, im­pact­ing not just the ben­e­fi­cia­ries, but their fam­i­lies too. Last year saw pos­i­tive out­comes on over 7000 ben­e­fi­cia­ries and their fam­i­lies.

The year 2017 marks the tenth year in suc­ces­sion of the In­shanya Foun­da­tion or­gan­is­ing the Yel­low Rib­bon NGO Fair (YRNF). How was this unique ven­ture con­cep­tu­alised and how has it grown in the decade since its in­cep­tion?

It has been 10 years, and right from in­cep­tion, Ishanya Foun­da­tion has clearly fo­cused on em­pow­er­ing women, en­abling them to earn a sec­ondary source of in­come to en­hance their liveli­hood. The Foun­da­tion ini­ti­ated a pro­gramme of re­cy­cling old fab­ric into cloth bags, com­pletely made by un­der­priv­i­leged women through ap­pro­pri­ate train­ing. This was a novel idea to pro­tect and safe­guard the en­vi­ron­ment. In time, we added an ar­ray of items to our prod­uct list and re­al­ized that these prod­ucts were beau­ti­fully made, but the women lacked de­fin­i­tive chan­nels to mar­ket these prod­ucts to the right tar­get au­di­ence. Many other NGOs also faced a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. Af­ter con­sid­er­able de­lib­er­a­tion, we came up with the idea of a Fair that would fo­cus on pro­mot­ing the NGOs and SHGs, sup­port­ing a mul­ti­tude of causes like can­cer pa­tients and phys­i­cally hand­i­capped chil­dren, etc. Thus, the Yel­low Rib­bon NGO Fair was born, which, in its first year in 2007 had 43 NGOs par­tic­i­pat­ing. Over the years, the re­sponse has been en­cour­ag­ing and the ini­tia­tive has been re­ceiv­ing an over­whelm­ing re­sponse, prompt­ing us to re­strict the num­ber of NGOs and ar­ti­sans from across In­dia to 120. Hav­ing re­ceived such en­cour­ag­ing re­sponse, there was a need to pro­vide a plat­form on a sim­i­lar con­cept, but which was not re­stricted to the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants or for a lim­ited num­ber of days. The Heart to Hand web­site fol­lowed suit, wherein we were able to col­late and come up with a com­pen­dium of 200 NGOs across eight cities of In­dia to show­case over 400 prod­ucts that could be made avail­able all year round. The peo­ple of Pune city wel­comed this ini­tia­tive and sup­ported us whole- heart­edly. It is be­cause of them that we have been able to con­tinue this ini­tia­tive for many years now.

What is the spirit of the YRNF? Shed light on the NGOs par­tic­i­pat­ing in it and the work they do to­wards the eman­ci­pa­tion of so­ci­ety.

The Yel­low Rib­bon NGO and Ar­ti­san Fair is a plat­form pro­vided to NGOs, SHGs and ar­ti­sans across In­dia to show­case and sell the prod­ucts made as part of their in­come gen­er­a­tion or vo­ca­tional train­ing pro­grammes, and gen­er­ate aware­ness on the causes they sup­port and work on. In ad­di­tion, these NGOs, SHGs and ar­ti­sans re­ceive a great op­por­tu­nity to en­hance their com­mu­ni­ca­tion, mar­ket­ing and pack­ag­ing skills. The Yel­low Rib­bon NGO and Ar­ti­san Fair is prob­a­bly the only fair in our coun­try that pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to share best prac­tises and an in­ter­ac­tion plat­form amongst NGOs, SHGs and ar­ti­sans. Rec­og­niz­ing en­trepreneur­ship abil­i­ties is an ad­di­tional fea­ture of this ini­tia­tive that has re­ceived an over­whelm­ing re­sponse year on year from the devel­op­ment sec­tor. Our aim is to cre­ate a plat­form recog­ni­tion for these NGOs amongst the masses in or­der to be ap­proached by cor­po­rates and in­di­vid­u­als at large, and help cre­ate self-re­liant and self-suf­fi­cient youth, pre-dom­i­nantly women, farm­ers and their fam­i­lies. Preser­va­tion of dy­ing art forms of ar­ti­sans is an­other equally im­por­tant av­enue of fo­cus of The Yel­low Rib­bon NGO Fair, and hence this flag­ship event is now known as The Yel­low Rib­bon NGO and Ar­ti­san Fair.

What are the ef­forts of Ishanya Foun­da­tion to en­cour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion of more NGOs and to build the morale

and skills of ex­ist­ing par­tic­i­pants?

Reg­is­tered NGOs, SHGs and ar­ti­sans from across In­dia are en­cour­aged and given the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in the fair. Regis­tra­tion fees are nom­i­nal and regis­tra­tion pro­ce­dures kept min­i­mal, thereby en­cour­ag­ing more NGOs and ar­ti­sans to par­tic­i­pate. Prod­uct screen­ing, ca­pac­ity build­ing work­shops for the NGOs par­tic­i­pat­ing on com­mu­ni­ca­tions, pack­ag­ing and prod­uct devel­op­ment have been in­cluded as part of the par­tic­i­pa­tion pro­ce­dure, as we at Ishanya Foun­da­tion be­lieve that we must en­able, en­cour­age and en­hance these up­com­ing NGOs and Ar­ti­sans.

What is the ap­peal of the YRNF? What can our read­ers ex­pect from it in the up­com­ing years?

Ishanya Foun­da­tion, through this flag­ship ini­tia­tive of The Yel­low Rib­bon NGO and Ar­ti­san Fair, truly be­lieves to be aligned in line with PM Modi’s vi­sion of ‘Make in In­dia’ and the ‘Skill In­dia Mis­sion’. We re­quest and urge one and all to sup­port us by vis­it­ing the fair and shop­ping from these de­serv­ing NGOs and ar­ti­sans. Our en­cour­age­ment and sup­port is what will en­able them to fur­ther their mis­sion and cause to bring about the much-re­quired so­cioe­co­nomic im­pact, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral In­dia.

In an in­creas­ingly dig­i­talised world, are there ef­forts of the Foun­da­tion to pro­pel the YRNF on a global level us­ing so­cial media?

We could ei­ther be with the times or step off the bus and be left be­hind. So­cial media and dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion are the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the new era, and Ishanya Foun­da­tion is mak­ing all ef­forts to use so­cial media ef­fec­tively to move with cur­rent times. In our pur­suit to max­imise aware­ness on our work and con­tri­bu­tion to the devel­op­ment sec­tor, we feel so­cial media will help take us to greater heights of a global level and plat­form.

An­other ini­tia­tive close to your heart is Muskaan - to em­power fi­nan­cially chal­lenged women. How does Muskaan op­er­ate?

Over the last three years, Ishanya Foun­da­tion

has ini­ti­ated an­other unique pro­ject named Muskaan to em­power fi­nan­cially chal­lenged women. Un­der this ini­tia­tive, Ishanya Foun­da­tion re­ceives pre-owned gar­ments, clothes and ac­ces­sories through its ‘Muskaan Brand Am­bas­sadors’ of the city. These prod­ucts are checked for qual­ity, with those in good con­di­tion then sold at af­ford­able prices to un­der­priv­i­leged fam­i­lies in var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties of Pune by 20 ‘Muskaan Pa­rees’, a self-help group of women af­fil­i­ated with the Foun­da­tion.

What drives you to find more and more ways to con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety? Where do you find your in­spi­ra­tion and who are your sup­port sys­tems?

Ishanya Foun­da­tion and in par­tic­u­lar The Yel­low Rib­bon NGO and Ar­ti­san Fair (YRNF), a sig­na­ture an­nual event, has had an im­mense ef­fect on my life. There is no greater plea­sure than see­ing peo­ple suc­ceed and be­ing a con­tribut­ing fac­tor for it. We are here to pro­vide NGOs and ar­ti­sans a plat­form to show­case their prod­ucts, which they had never thought of. We will en­able them reach out to a larger au­di­ence. For ex­am­ple, we were the first foun­da­tion to ap­proach Yer­wada Jail, to let their prod­ucts be dis­played at YRNF. They never imag­ined this. The plea­sure and sat­is­fac­tion to see tal­ent be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated and flour­ish­ing is what keeps me go­ing. Per­son­ally, it has made me more hum­ble and aware. I have evolved with ev­ery year of YRNF. It made me re­al­ize the need of the hour. It has been a won­der­ful learn­ing and grat­i­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

In be­tween manag­ing a huge busi­ness em­pire and car­ry­ing out pi­o­neer­ing so­cial work, you have also taken ef­forts to pur­sue your pas­sion for art. The Tilt­ing Art Gallery is do­ing ground­break­ing work in pro­mot­ing new tal­ent and gen­er­at­ing a lot of praise from the art in­dus­try.

The Tilt­ing Art Gallery, set up at Ishanya, Pune, was an­other of my dreams on ac­count of my in­her­ent sense of de­sign, art and aes­thet­ics. This state-of-the-art gallery sup­ports and en­cour­ages budding artists to ex­plore their creativity, com­ple­mented with train­ing ses­sions con­ducted by some of the best names in the in­dus­try, and later show­case their art works. Even with our re­tail es­tab­lish­ment, we have be­come the in­cu­ba­tion cen­tre for sev­eral up­com­ing brands that dis­play great po­ten­tial and pas­sion.

High stress sit­u­a­tions, ob­sta­cles, long hours and undy­ing ef­forts are bound to be an in­escapable part of the life you have cho­sen for your­self. What do you do to re-en­er­gise and re­ju­ve­nate your­self?

Well­ness and fit­ness regimes and also mu­sic help me strike a great work-life bal­ance, apart from my daily rou­tine of work and my time with my fam­ily. As men­tioned ear­lier, I re­ceive great so­lace from my work, which is truly grat­i­fy­ing in en­abling me to achieve my dream, to be able to con­trib­ute to the so­ci­ety.

You do not come across as one who would rest on the lau­rels of your many ac­com­plish­ments. What will you be in the news for next?

‘The re­ward for work well done is the op­por­tu­nity to do more,’ is a Bril­liant quote by Jonas Salk, which makes me keep want­ing to scale new heights. Our con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety so far is just a few drops in the mighty ocean, there is much more to ac­com­plish and many more lives to reach out to. But I am very pos­i­tive that with my able team, Ishanya Foun­da­tion will be able to be a ma­jor con­tribut­ing im­ple­ment­ing agency of so­cial change for so­ci­ety, to bring about the change we all en­vis­age for the bet­ter­ment of our so­ci­ety.

How can our read­ers em­u­late from your life, which you have ded­i­cated to­wards the achieve­ment of ex­cel­lence and em­pow­er­ment, and do their own bit to­wards the bet­ter­ment of so­ci­ety?

The Uni­verse has a won­der­ful way of man­i­fest­ing what you be­lieve to be good and note-wor­thy. Each of us is here today for a des­ig­nated pur­pose, and in our jour­ney of life, as we strive to reach our goals and fol­low our dreams, let us al­ways be mind­ful of those less for­tu­nate, and in any small way pos­si­ble, con­trib­ute back to so­ci­ety by be­ing part of es­tab­lished and struc­tured or­gan­i­sa­tions in the devel­op­ment sec­tor. It is this col­lec­tive ac­tion that will be able to bring about so­cial-eco­nomic change for those less for­tu­nate, give them rea­son and hope to live and ex­cel. In re­turn, I as­sure you that you will be grate­ful for be­ing bold, and be­ing the change!

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